Arts Listings

Arts: Malcolm X the Opera at Oakland Metro

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday June 06, 2006

Joseph Wright as Malcolm Little, from the depths of a prison cell, sings, “You want the truth, but you don’t want to know,” as he contemplates his change from “country boy” newly arrived in Boston to “Detroit Red,” hustling the Harlem streets, on the verge of a conversion that will make him into Malcolm X. His is the powerful voice that will express African-American rage and hope as portrayed in Anthony Davis’ lucid and compelling opera X, based on Malcolm’s autobiography and performed by the Oakland Opera Theater through June 11 at the Oakland Metro Operahouse near Jack London Square. 

“It’s a story of transformation,” Davis said of the opera, which besides his score, has the book by his brother Christopher Davis (an actor-director), and has a libretto by their cousin, poet Thulani Davis. “It’s a heroic story; he goes through the fire to realize who he is. It’s our heroic story for African-Americans, which is how I realized it could be an opera. Its spirituality really is operatic.”  

And its high point is the scene of Malcolm’s conversion by Elijah Muhammed (played by splendid tenor Darron Flagg) to the Nation of Islam. The scene is deftly staged, with Malcolm ascending up the tiers of a set dominated by a smiling Elijah at the pyramidal apex, gradually putting on glasses, taking up the Book, and intoning the Creed. This is after his long-lost brother Reginald (Jason Jackson) has introduced him to Elijah’s version of Islam in his cell. Malcolm was initially incredulous, a trapped con-man who thinks he knows all the angles: “You talk in riddles about truth and a man ... what’s the game? ... Soon I will ask him how empty it feels to be the god of an empty man like me.” 

This epiphany is counterpointed by Malcolm’s later acceptance into orthodox Islam, when he is sent by his wife Betty Shabazz (Angela Baham) to take the Hajj to Mecca after his lonely walk away from Elijah and after being censured for his famous reaction to JFK’s assassination: “America’s climate of hate coming back on itself ... chickens coming home to roost.” 

This is a quieter, contemplative moment, as Malcolm feels the solidarity of all humanity—and then returns to a chorus of reporters harrying him: “Mr. X! Mr. X! Mr. Malcolm X!” 

“You always ask what you already know,” parries Malcolm, who reintroduces himself with his name of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, “a man of peace [whom] they do not know . . . he is already free.” This is before his assassination, which he has predicted: “We do not know which mask evil wears . . . These men do not wear white hoods but hide on the street in suits.” 

The cast of 20 reflects both the depth of the storytelling and the importance of the chorus. Singers emerge from the chorus to solo or to silently play incidental roles, and the chorus itself is an integral part of the movement of the piece, both musically and in story, moment by moment tightly joined to—and boosting—the expressiveness of the principals. 

The score and exposition of Malcolm’s life prove complex rhythms, both dense and crystal clear with harmonies always shifting, surging forward in power, then quieter, more contemplative—floating upward and away, dreamlike, or dropping into modal harmonies that subtly restore the tension with syncopated rhythmns. 

Intensity marks certain scenes from the beginning with Duana Davis excellently portraying in voice and harried stance Malcolm’s mother, awaiting his Garveyite preacher father’s return home in Michigan, long after dark, only to learn of his death under a streetcar, which she attributes to the Klan, who have terrorized the family before. 

Her resulting breakdown and the breakup of the family by a white social worker (Lisa Bolin), eventually send Malcolm, suitcase in hand, to his adult sister Ella (Lori Willis) in Boston, where he’s introduced to the street by a chorus of players, one of whom (not clearly credited!) lays it on him in a brilliant aria detailing the modus operandi and demeanor of the hustler. 

Malcolm had always said his distinction as a leader was his familiarity with streetlife and its awful draw for black youth.  

Throughout, Joseph Wright gracefully portrays Malcolm’s transformation, richly singing and intoning his speeches and commentaries on “bad times” that are briskly but coherently touched on, four decades of radical change that pass by in quick vignettes more like the tableaux of “pregnant moments” of classical modern dramaturgy. 

The superb orchestra, hidden away in a loft, under the musical direction of Deirdre McClure with the assistance of Skye Atman, brilliantly plays a spectrum of musical forms, including touches of jazz which the composer hoped would parallel the history that unfolds, with excellent work by trumpeter, vibraphonist, bass and drums, reeds and keyboards. 

X should be seen and heard, as a seminal work in contemporay American culture—yet the Oakland Opera Theater production seems to be the first full staging since its premiere in New York in 1986. This is a rare—unfortunately rare—and important event. 


The Oakland Opera presents X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X, through June 11, 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m., at the Oakland Metro, 201 Broadway, Oakland. For more information, call 763-1146 (between 2-6 p.m.) or see 


Photograph of Joseph Wright as Malcolm X, by Ralph Granich.